Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Some Food for Thought

Over this holiday season I’ve been traveling around Tanzania with my sister who has been volunteering here as a health educator. Though she has been primarily working on HIV/AIDS issues, I of course have been more interested in how this particular African country has been dealing with waterborne diseases. And the fact of the matter is that – just as Tanzania’s economy is experiencing relatively solid growth while Mali is left watching on the sidelines - Tanzania is steadily improving its indicators of water and sanitation while my beloved Mali remains mired in stagnation and disease.

Statistics vary according to the respective methodologies of the World Health Organization, the Center for Disease Control, UNICEF, etc.; and public health statistics are notoriously difficult to measure in the hardly-functional states of sub-Saharan Africa. But the broad picture is clear; though health indicators in Tanzania remain generally abysmal, they are considerably less abysmal in Tanzania than in Mali. Here in Tanzania there is a significantly lower prevalence of diarrhea, giardia, dysentery and cholera; Tanzania has a lower prevalence of death by diarrheal disease, a lower infant mortality rate, a lower child mortality rate, and a slightly greater life expectancy overall.

And in many of the same reports, you will find that only 24 percent of Tanzanians have “access to adequate sanitation facilities” i.e. toilets or latrines. This statistic too is prone to wild estimation and subjectivity, but I think that it may be the most telling. A Westerner might look at this figure and read it to mean Tanzanian sanitation infrastructure is atrocious – I think that would be a fair statement – but they don’t know the meaning of atrocious until they read that only 1/6 of that fraction, a mere 4 percent of Malians have “access to adequate sanitation”. The blunt truth is that beyond the likes of Niger, Mauritania, Haiti, Afghanistan and the very nadir of the most-underdeveloped countries of the world, it is difficult to exceed the sheer disarray of sanitation in the Republic of Mali.

Confined to the realm of pure statistical analysis, one might be inclined to assume that that is the whole story; Tanzanians have more latrines and soak pits than Malians, latrines and soak pits reduce the chance of fecal contamination of the drinking water, therefore Tanzanians have less prevalence of giardia and dysentery and greater life expectancies than Malians. Q.E.D.

But there’s more to it than that. In addition to the existence of water and sanitation infrastructure of the lack thereof, the prevalence of diseases transmitted via the fecal-oral cycle is tied to sanitation practices. Loyal readers of this blog are probably familiar with the fact that Mali’s appalling prevalence of gastrointestinal disease is largely caused by the country’s traditions which entail that the people of that country clean their respective anuses with their respective left hands, they “wash” their hands before eating by mushing their left and right hands together in a tin can of water used by every member of the eating party, and then they eat from a communal food bowl with their respective right hands. Popular Tanzanian anal-cleansing and eating practices are not much better; they generally eat their corn ugali with their hands, very few ever adequately wash their hands with soap, and even fewer use toilet paper or a bidet.

However, there are a few subtle differences. Most notably, when Maasai herders “wash” their hands without soap, they don’t dip their hands into a container of increasingly-filthy water. Instead, the eating rituals of the Maasai culture involve the youngest boy bringing a pitcher of hot water to his elders and pouring it over their hands. Even if they’re not doing a very thorough job of washing their hands, at least they’re not making them even dirtier as the Miniankas are wont to do.

And even though the Maasai maintain the uncouth tradition of eating with their hands, they do not eat with their hands from a communal food bowl. You see, in addition to drinking tea and eating fried potato “chips”, Tanzanians adopted from their former British colonial overlords the practice of eating from individual plates. This – I believe – makes a world of a difference. Even if someone is going to eat ugali with fecal matter-tainted hands and unwittingly practice coprophagy, there is relatively little risk of contracting giardia, dysentery or cholera by ingesting one’s own fecal matter – if there are amoebas in your stools, then you already have amoebic dysentery. The only way to contract fecal-oral cycle-transmitted disease is to ingest someone else’s poo particles – a risk significantly downgraded by a culture that shifts from eating from one shared bowl of food to multiple, individualized bowls of food.

I can only assume that the hygienically-superior eating habits of Tanzanians and their hand-washing practices which at least are not counterproductive probably provide a partial explanation of why this society is significantly less mired in disease than the people of Mali. Of course, this hypothesis would be quite daunting to prove as 1) there is no control group; and 2) if compilations of data on disease prevalence are shaky and “access to adequate sanitation facilities” is much too subjective to ever be analyzed scientifically, any statistic like “the prevalence of adequate hygiene practices” is 100-percent subjective and therefore epidemiologically-useless.

Nevertheless, I suppose that the conclusions are quite clear: cultures that are receptive to amending their cultural practices at least stand a chance of improving their public health and their general standard of living. Conversely, cultures which exhibit little genuine interest in learning how to swim are more liable to sink. If the people of Mali want to sully their hands in each other’s filth and eat with their hands from the same food bowl, then they are going to remain forever mired in gastrointestinal disease.


Nathan said...

My PCV partner shares your blog with me from time to time and you are clearly a bright guy with important insights. I am currently working on water issues in Kenya/Tanzania and can attest to the Maasai (plus other tribal groups) hygiene habits. Needless to say it's a bit unsettling to know that hygiene practice can in fact be quite a bit worse than here.

On the scientific side of your argument, as you surmise any type of epi study seems wholly implausible. But I think some well designed exposure analyses would be helpful. Of course do you really need to quantify "I eat with my anus wiping hand"?

Unknown said...

Amoebas -> no fun. They visited me a few times in Morocco and once here, before I finally did the 2 week no-alcohol treatment to purge the little devils from my body.

Yeah, guess I ate poo or remnants from poo somewhere in Morocco.

I'll probably do it again. It's so much fun!